| Follow Us: Facebook Twitter Youtube RSS Feed


The City Camp "Unconference": Rewiring the system for change

The coffee break became the conference at CityCampMN, held Saturday at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Center. Attended by more than 100 representatives from government, neighborhood organizations, nonprofits, and web development concerns, the event is one of many recent “unconferences” that have been held in Chicago, San Francisco, and Honolulu, as well as in the United Kingdom and Russia.

The role of event “convener” was filled by Steve Clift, Executive Director of E-Democracy.org. Clift, who also teaches “Social Media: Engaging Democracy in Communities Online,” a graduate course at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Clift said the event was a grassroots effort to connect local governments with the open-source software development community and open-government advocates.

A Cure for Smugness?

He stressed that the unconference was sorely needed in Minnesota. “We suffer from progressive smugness here, and we rarely look around to see what others are doing, because we seem to think that Minnesotans create ideas and then sell them to the world. But other cities are importing our ideas and improving upon them. We need to start doing some importing of our own, because we have the capacity to leapfrog everyone else if we act now.”

He believes that the timing was right for a multidisciplinary event of this sort. “There is a sea of interest that wasn’t in the community even four years ago,” he said. “People are ready now to take government to a 2.0 model,” he continued. “We’re getting everyone together to ask the question how our local communities can be bold, inclusive, open, accessible, wired, and innovative. We’re hoping to connect bottom-up with top-down for collaboration, and if it all goes well, the next layer of creativity will have been unleashed.’’

But Where's the Agenda?

The unique format of the conference, in which attendees determine the agenda collaboratively at the start of the day, created both curiosity and skepticism, Clift observed, adding with a laugh, “I’ve had people asking me for a speaker list and agenda all week long. I have to tell them that at an unconference, those things don’t exist, that instead you go in with your knowledge and share it. It’s the idea that ‘we are the ones we were waiting for,’ so instead of a bunch of people in a room being spoon-fed by a speaker, it’s more like a massive coffee break with a little bit of structure.”

The day started with each of the 100-plus participants standing up for an introduction, including three words to describe themselves, and the recorded words were used to create a real-time word cloud. 

That a multitude of disciplines was represented became apparent during the introductions, and Clift was pleased with the crossing of lines dividing the worlds of government, social media, the web, the arts, and communities. “It’s the dynamic mix that makes a CityCamp hum,” he said. “We want to encourage fresh thinking and risk taking, and it helps to have everyday folks attending, not just digerati.”

After introductions, there was a review of the unconference’s four principles and one law:  

The Four Principles:
Whoever comes are the right people
Whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened
When it starts is the right time
When it’s over, it’s over

The Law of Two Feet:
If you find yourself in a room where you are not contributing or learning, go somewhere else.

"Igniting" the Crowd

The large-group time ended with five-minute, five-slide Ignite Sessions that were kicked off by Otto Doll, CIO of the City of Minneapolis. Peter Fleck, a community organizer and activist from the Seward neighborhood, spent his five minutes on a discussion of information networking within communities. Fleck, who attended the first CityCamp in Chicago two years ago, said the day before the event that he was hoping to generate movement from Minneapolis City Hall toward releasing more usable data, especially for crime statistics.

Fleck contends that the current information is available only block-by-block, and that the city has set up too many obstacles to allow for easy manipulation and analysis of the data. Toward the end of the day, as he was leaving a session called “Fighting Crime,” Fleck was not optimistic that any major policy shifts would happen immediately, but expressed determination to keep fighting.

An Arts Advocate

While representatives from arts organizations had a lower level of participation, Sherilyn Howes, Managing Director of Youth Performance Company, a youth-centered, Minneapolis-based theater company, said she’d still received value from the day. Commenting on a session called “Organizing through Arts,” she said that she had expected to be listening most of the time, but surprised herself by how much she spoke up. “I see the value in having no leader designated for the sessions,” she said, adding with a laugh, “I’m finding out that I know more than I thought I did.

“It’s a very organic way to make information sharing happen,” she said, “and I appreciate talking with other people in the trenches, who do similar type of work as I do, but from a different angle.”

In some sessions, the lack of a designated leader created a space for others to share their expertise. Tyler Olson, president of the social media consulting group SMCpros, stepped up to the whiteboard during “Social Media ROI” and offered for-profit expertise to the audience of government and nonprofit representatives. The youthful and energetic Olson provided a detailed primer on inexpensive and free listening and tracking tools, supported by comments from his social media contemporaries in attendance, then volunteered to tape a one-minute video summary of the session, which will be added to a “best of” video roundup.

A Paradigm for the Times

Clift, the convener, says that this sort of cross-discipline knowledge sharing is what’s most needed in the current economic climate. “In an era of scarce resources, we have to think creatively about how our community comes together to take advantage of online resources. What we hope the unconference does is connect some talents to start getting pieces in place. An example is something like leveraging existing code, which the government usually undertakes in large projects. But it can also be small and elegant and creative, and that’s the sort of thing that I hope comes out of the day.”

The results of the unconference may not be immediately apparent, since thought-starting and networking are really the name of the game. But, after attending several of these sessions all over the world, Clift says, “We’ve seen projects emerge with people getting together to say, ‘Let’s do that!’ or ‘We could make an app for that!’ Many projects have been ignited by software developers who have day jobs, and who are passionate about helping their community.” Projects can be started and tracked through the CityCampMN online forum.

In addition to project-driven success, Clift says that another effect can be to create an authentic sense of demand for open government and social media in the electoral sphere.  “It can give the people on the front lines a little cover by allowing them to say, ‘People want this stuff; I heard about it at the unconference.’”

Clift sums up his impressions of the day by saying, “for most participants, it was a chance to connect with a room full of people they should have met years ago.”

Julie Kendrick's last article for The Line was a profile of entrepreneur Rachel Swardson, in our November 9, 2011 issue.

Photos, top to bottom:

A City Camp session on social media and social justice

"Convener" Steve Clift addresses the "unconference."

Ambreasha Frazier makes a point.

Seward neighborhood organizer Peter Fleck presents on crime statistics and their availability in Minneapolis.

E-democracy, face-to-face

All photos by Bill Kelley

Signup for Email Alerts
Signup for Email Alerts